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Forward Thinkers Push Reverse Product Placement

Homer Simpson's drink of choice, Duff Beer, doesn't exist in the real world. Imagine if it did.

That's the idea behind reverse product placement. While traditional product placement refers to integrating a real brand into a fictional environment, an idea that's gaining traction is to create a fictional brand in a fictional environment and then release it into the real world.

Examples are few, but include the restaurant chain Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., which is based on Paramount's 1994 movie Forrest Gump; Nestlé's Willie Wonka candy brand; and Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans, a candy that until 2001 existed only in the world of Harry Potter. A more recent example is Potion, a drink that first appeared only in Square Enix's videogame Final Fantasy but was released by beverage maker Suntory in Japan last year. A rep from Square Enix declined comment on any future plans to introduce other such brands into its games.

Take 2 Interactive, the videogame company, has several fictional brands in its Grand Theft Auto games, including Sprunk cola and Cluckin' Bell, a fast-food chicken chain that has its own Web site (cluckinbellhappychicken.com) that includes menu items like the Cluckin' Huge Meal and the Cluckin' Little Meal. A Take 2 rep declined to comment on any plans to release those brands in the real world anytime soon, though future games will feature more fictional brands.

David Edery, worldwide game planner for Microsoft's Xbox, who wrote a story in the Harvard Business Review last year about reverse product placement, said videogames are an especially good medium for the practice. "I think it could work very well for a lot of products," he said. "The cost of product placement in a game or a movie really isn't that much when you compare it to what Procter and Gamble spends to launch a product."

One possible twist is to plant a real brand that exists outside the U.S. and then gauge the reaction. Mitsubishi, for instance, placed its Lancer Evolution in Sony PlayStation's Gran Turismo videogame years before the model was available in the U.S. in 2003. A Mitsu rep said placement in the game "helped heighten awareness here for a model that was not yet sold in the United States" and played a role in the carmaker's decision to release it here. But she stressed that the main factor was pr, which got the word out to the auto trade press.

Ilya Vedrashko, emerging media strategist Hill, Holiday, Boston, said introducing brands in videogames makes them real to a certain extent. "People know them and they have all the characteristics of successful brands," he said. "Granted, it's a limited market, but it's a market."

Another likely medium for reverse product placement is Second Life, the online virtual world. Starood Hotels and Resorts unit W Hotels launch a sub-brand called Aloft in Second Life last year shortly before it appeared in the real world. "Procter & Gamble shouldn't be taking Tide and putting it in Second Life; they should be making a new brand in Second Life," said Mark Schiller, CEO of Electric Artists, a New York firm that worked with the W on the project. Schiller, whose firm does not work with P&G, said the possibility of any of his clients using reverse product placement is still "six months out."

But Chad Stoller, executive director of emerging platforms at Organic, the New York online ad shop, said reverse product placement probably wouldn't work because the audiences would be too small. "It's a great opportunity, but it's more like a novelty," he said. "I don't know if it could survive in the market."

For the moment, the Simpsons people agree. A rep for 2oth Century Fox said there are no plans to release a Duff Beer or any other product based on fictional brands in the show. Said the rep: "It doesn't sound like something the Simpsons would do."

 

Todd Wasserman, Brandweek. January 29, 2007

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